As a former White House chief of staff, the best advice I could have given Gen. John F. Kelly has been overtaken by events: Don’t take the job.
Kelly, who has rendered extraordinary service and sacrifice to the nation, just signed up for what may truly be an impossible mission: bringing discipline, order and strategic focus to the chaos that is the Trump White House.
To have any chance of succeeding, he will have to accomplish three extraordinary tasks, all at odds with President Trump’s instincts.
First, discipline. There’s no doubt the decision to replace Reince Priebus with Kelly was based on the hope that a former four-star Marine general could get this menagerie in line. You don’t have to compare the Trump White House to no-drama Obama or the buttoned-down Bush operations to know there is simply no precedent in modern history for the current White House culture of factionalism, infighting and lack of respect among senior staff members. Of course, most of Trump’s team are simply modeling their behavior on that of the boss. His demeaning treatment of Priebus and Attorney General Jeff Sessions signals that there are no boundaries in Trumpland, leading to the unprofessional actions of now-former communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Indeed, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders informed the public that the president “encourages” such behavior.
Kelly is walking into a White House that looks more like a cock fight than an episode of “The West Wing.” (See Mooch, you can use that word without being profane.) The White House culture will have to be shaken to its core. Kelly must be able to fire anyone at will, including to enforce a no-tolerance policy for behavior unbecoming a senior government official. Scaramucci’s departure Monday is a good start, but Kelly will have to keep a tight rein on a White House staff that is used to few boundaries. And if there is going to be an exception for Trump’s relatives, Kelly should get an explicit commitment that even Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump report through him — no end arounds.
The most difficult discipline problem for Kelly, though, will not be the staff but Trump himself. Early signs are not auspicious. The day after appointing Kelly, Trump ranted on Twitter against Senate Republicans for failure to pass their horrific health-care bill, which would have denied care to millions of Americans and raised costs for millions more. I have no doubt that Kelly, unlike Priebus, can say no to power, but whether power will listen is another matter.
Kelly’s second task will be to restore strategic direction to Trump’s haphazard policy-making process.
In domestic affairs, that will mean reestablishing relationships with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Trump’s current strategy of partisan bullying has been disastrous, producing almost no significant legislation in what has generally been the most productive part of a new president’s time in office. Other than rolling back some Obama regulations on behalf of special interests, the only bill of significance that has passed is the Russia sanctions bill that the White House opposed.
Kelly cannot outsource the job of establishing a working relationship with congressional leaders to Vice President Pence or his congressional liaison. The new chief of staff is known as a man of his word, and he has to use that reputation to establish a rapport and find common ground with Republicans and Democrats on issues such as infrastructure, tax reform and, yes, even a bipartisan approach to improving the Affordable Care Act.
In international affairs, he has to help national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis focus on the clear priorities of Russia, the Middle East and North Korea. With respect to the last, he might start by asking why the White House has not even nominated an ambassador to South Korea or filled any of the senior regional posts for Asia at State or Defense.
Kelly’s third task might be the hardest.
He has to protect the integrity and independence of the Justice Department and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation from constant interference by the president and the White House. He has to be resolute in defending our constitutional norms and the rule of law. While it may not endear him to the president, Kelly will actually be helping Trump stay out of even more trouble.
I began by noting that Kelly may have embarked on mission impossible, but the good news is that he does have a strong hand to play. The truth is that the president needs Kelly more than Kelly needs him. Trump simply cannot afford to have Kelly walk without disastrous consequences. The new chief of staff should use that power to restore discipline and dignity to a White House sorely in need of both.